Oils

May 26, 2009

Most books advise a beginner to begin with oils as it is more forgiving.  It is easier to correct a mistake for example, than with watercolor.  That may be true – especially if one uses opaque pigments – but oils, by nature of the medium itself, are viscously translucent, thus understanding their innate capacity to transmit light through a clear film is ultimately critical for both succesful manipulations of form without pentimento as well as transmission of light.   Eastlake noted, in referring to Jan Van Eyck, “The leading attribute of the material of oil painting, as distinguished from those of tempera and fresco, viz. its power to transmit light of an internal surface through superimposed substances more or less diaphanous…”.

Jackson Pollock

Jackson Pollock

There are two main approaches to painting in oils, alla prima and indirect.  Although much art is created as a mixture of the two approaches, in themselves they are distinct. The contemporary art world itself relies quite heavily upon directly percieved and expressed imagery, thus an “alla prima” approach tends to be emphasized. Information on the more indirect methods of painting is less available than it was hundreds of years ago, although more and more of it is cropping up on the internet. Here is one site I have found that is a fine, yet relatively dis-interested treasure trove.

Alla prima essentially means executed in one session as exemplified by Jackson Pollock in his drip paintings.  There can be no argument against this method of approach as both its demands and results can be superlative.  After all, if a painting has any chance of reflecting the evanescent truth of the moment, it needs to be created in the same spirit, with a Zen-like flair.

the Mona Lisa

the Mona Lisa

What then are the values or possibilities of a more indirect technique?  Does a laborious technique ultimately result in a tedious and heavy painting (it often does!)?  Can a painting developed indirectly still retain the freshness of the moment?  If so, then how?  Thus, for those who feel themselves drawn to an indirect method, the knowledge of ancient techniques is extremely helpful.  Indirect painting simply means developing an image through a series of manipulations over time and calculated to achieve a particular result.  A further refinement of the indirect painting technique is the mixed method.  Both indirect and mixed method techniques allow for a methodological layering which in itself creates optical effects of great beauty and luminescence.  Subject matter aside – what can be more eternal than that?

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